Adam Nie | Contributor
A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kirsten Wong, member of the Pitt Progressives Steering Council. We discussed upcoming local elections, division of the Campus Left, and, yes, Bernie Sanders.
TFW: Let’s start basic. In a moment when ideologies find it increasingly easier to rally against an enemy than to rally around a friend, what are you fighting for?
KW: Last year, after Bernie Sanders’ campaign obviously fell through, there were a lot of us who worked on his campaign who were really energized, who really wanted to take that movement and carry it on. We thought we could make a student organization at Pitt called Pitt Progressives. Our goal was to continue his movement of progressive politics – free tuition, universal healthcare, ending mass incarceration, women’s rights, racial equality, economic equality, things like that.
TFW: …And how far will you go to reach those goals? How far do you think it reasonable to push that movement?
KW: The great thing about Pitt, we did see a lot of support for Bernie’s campaign, and we know a lot of millennials are more to the left than, say, our grandparents. So we did think that there was a lot of potential on campus. Our focus is more on a local level. Obviously on a national level we support things like single-payer and free tuition, but we wanted to focus on local politics because as college students, people do tend to feel powerless. Our goal is to get progressive candidates on a local level into office. That, to us, seems like the biggest way to bring about change. For example, we had Mik Pappas talk to our meeting. He’s running for magisterial district judge and we have some of our members canvassing for him every week. We’re trying to get Tom Prigg, who’s running for Congress. So we really believe that to change the world you have to start in your own backyard.
TFW: This fall, the local chapter of the YDSA (Young Democratic Socialists of America) merged with the Pitt Progressives behind the Pitt Progressive banner. What motivated that decision?
KW: They approached us about possibly merging, we actually weren’t really aware of them. There are a lot of leftist groups on campus, but there’s not really a strong progressive presence. Since we share a lot of the same goals and ideology, rather than have all these different smaller groups, we saw this as an opportunity to build a stronger alternative left on campus.
TFW: What kind of affiliation will you maintain with YDSA’s national network in the wake of that merger?
KW: Pittsburgh DSA has its own chapter, very strong and well-organized. They’re our support system. They give us resources, they help provide us with different campaigns and connections. They’re great to us. But we also have issues here at Pitt that we wanna focus on. We’re technically a “young” chapter of the DSA, but we have independent focuses too.
TFW:Some of your stances appear extreme compared to those of the Pitt College Democrats, yet moderate relative to other groups on campus. How do you define balance at your point on the political spectrum?
KW: College campuses and student organizations both tend to be highly polarized, to the point where it can almost come off as intimidating to students who aren’t extremely into politics. Many students agree with Bernie’s ideas. A lot of Americans did. So we wanted to be an approachable organization where students would feel welcome to reach out and get politically involved without having the pressure of a label. Pitt Dems does great work too, we’re glad to have them on campus. However, we know there are students who fall in between, and we wanted to provide a space for them.
TFW: Do you feel that a belief in the balanced path as the best path helps or harms the American political process overall?
KW: It helps, at least in my opinion. I don’t know if everyone in Pitt Progressives believes this. We focus on uniting and collaborating with other groups. The whole idea of progressive politics is coalition. It’s important to be able to balance your values and issues but also work with other student groups, even if you don’t agree with them. We were approached by Students for Liberty. They wanted to work with us and we were completely open to that. We don’t want to be seen as this ideological purity test, where if you don’t fit 100% in our voice, you’re not welcome. That’s untrue of us. And I know many students do feel alienated. At least when I came to Pitt, I remember meeting with a lot of different left-leaning organizations, and I didn’t always feel that I fit in. I almost felt that they were a little more exclusive than they should have been. We’re really trying to create an environment where that doesn’t happen and everyone feels welcome.
TFW: Turning to a different type of balance, the progressive movement, and your organization’s correspondence in particular, tend to emphasize group decisions and communal action, avoiding “you” or “I” entirely in favor of “we,” while at the same time, latching on to individual figures such as Bernie Sanders or Colin Kaepernick. When does an individual become qualified or unqualified to represent a movement?
KW: I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a qualification regimen, per se. It does become problematic when certain individuals become leaders of a movement which they do not represent. I don’t think anyone… it’s very difficult to represent a whole group of people. That’s why we really focus on consensus and less of a hierarchy. Definitely we have an idea of allyship, where we don’t speak for anyone, but we share their mission. In terms of Bernie as a leader, on a national level I think he really has had a record of allying himself with women’s groups, minority groups, Native American groups. He’s a great influence in our club, but we don’t idolize him.
TFW: Have you found that events such as Senator Sanders’ campaign or provide effective openings to broaden your base, not only for their duration but in the long term? Why do you think this is?
KW: Do I think Bernie’s campaign helped? Definitely. The most important thing to us was making sure that his energy didn’t die out. And even he has still… the fact that single-payer is now a popular choice and Democratic Senators are warming up to it. The idea of free tuition is gaining traction, 15 dollar minimum wage is happening all around the country. His influence shows.
TFW: Are there certain metrics you feel are more valid than others in measuring your performance against that of other political groups on campus? If so, what are they and how have you been doing?
KW: One thing that I believe I talked about was inclusivity – whether students feel welcome at our organization, whether we’re approachable, and really having an open space for people to be politically active. As far as measurement, we don’t have any specific criteria. As long as we try to find local campaigns and ways we can get involved such as canvassing and phone banking. Also looking at things around campus that are relevant, that relate to students’ concerns, like making Pitt a sanctuary campus.
TFW:Given your belief in social service and community activism, should we draw additional comparisons to student organizations which are not explicitly political in nature? Are there others you partner with or would like to promote here?
KW: Yeah, definitely. We’re very open to collaborating with any student organization, political or nonpolitical. We’ve worked with Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, USAS, Pitt Prison Outreach. We also try to have events with nonpolitical organizations. Last semester we did an open mic, where we had people express their emotions about the times through art. If we can get nonpolitical students to come out, that really is a big achievement.
TFW: Sticking briefly with the idea of group-to-group comparison, what angle would you say the Pitt Progressives can offer better than other groups?
KW: There’s a lot of student organizations doing great work. That’s the beautiful thing about Pitt, all these small student organizations that have different missions. I like to think we have a diverse array of groups to get involved. We have the Pitt Focus Campaign to make Pitt a sanctuary campus, we have local candidates running for office, national issues like single-payer and phone banking when these issues come up all of a sudden out of nowhere. Compared to some groups, we have a little bit stronger emphasis on action.
TFW: Which upcoming events, if any, would you especially recommend to non-members or those who have not been involved with you before?
KW: We’re planning a demonstration for the sanctuary campus campaign. We would like to march to Chancellor Gallagher’s office, give him some letters, ask him to take a stance on this issue, and also have our petition as a visual demonstration somewhere on campus. If not that, I would highly recommend students get involved with Mik Pappas’ campaign. We’ve been canvassing every Monday and we always have students going. That’s a great opportunity to get involved in a local campaign, and it’s in [Bloomfield], right where a lot of Pitt students live.
Editor’s Note: An initial publication of this article mistakenly claimed that the Mik Pappas campaign is housed in Bloomsburg. It is actually located in Bloomfield, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The text has been edited to reflect this correction.